Saturday, December 10, 2016

Away Note

I'll be in Munich next week, attending a workshop at the Center for Advanced Studies on the topic "Reasoning in Physics." I'm giving a talk about "Naturalness: How religion turned to math" which has attracted criticism already before I've given it. I take that to mean I'm hitting a nerve ;)


  1. I will briefly lay out the history of arguments from naturalness and then explain why they are philosophical criteria, not mathematical ones.” A wife always cut off the end of a ham roast before cooking. Her husband grew curious and then perplexed

    Husband, “Honey, why do you do that?”
    Wife, “My mother does it.”

    Said husband confronted his mother-in-law.

    Husband, “Why do you do that?”
    Mother-in-law, “My mother did it.”

    His grand mother-in-law was still alive, in a nursing home.

    Husband, “Why did you do that?”
    Grand mother-in-law, “IDIOT! It didn’t fit in the roasting pan.”

    Beware of orbiting local minima.

  2. How religion turned to math? Perhaps you are referring to how the early conviction that "natural law" must be regular and so fathom able and predictable (because God is presumed to be changeless) led to careful observation, experiment and discovery of those laws (the early versions anyway).

  3. @Uncle Al -- see also, "Pershing at the Front," by Arthur Guiterman.

  4. Poor old Kepler was convinced that the planetary orbits must be circles that are separated by distances set by the regular solids. His three laws were only a by-product, and his thesis of course was entirely incorrect, if sweetly motivated. No, ellipses!! Sheesh!! And then, with Albert Einstein, not even ellipses!! We humans are full of absurd prejudices. But! The universe DOES have a deeply mathematical character: the huge huge successes of Kepler, and then of Newton, and then of Einstein, forcefully bring it out, ... er, bigly! (Sorry!) But is there a theme? I agree with Sabine - we don't know! Our guesses are likely just as foolish as that of Kepler.

  5. No, Matthew, she's referring to many scientists' seemingly irrational desire for only pretty numbers within an order of magnitude of 1 inside a given theory. The SM is not "natural".

    I think this is her most recent post on it:

  6. Sabine,

    Do you have any ideas about the "Ring Down echoes" pre-print? They suggest some intriguing analyses of black hole merger behaviors with possible implications for Planck-scale physics.

    (Or so this guy who once studied under Jim Hartle more than forty years ago thinks. I freely admit that I am more uncertain/confused about black hole event horizons that I remembered being in 1973. The last several years have left me utterly confused. But, the detection of actual black hole mergers is, to me, the most significant even in physics/astrophysics in my lifetime. I am happy to have been alive to witness it. So far from Cygnus X-1.)

    It seems to me that LIGO-enhanced, whenever it comes on-line, (maybe in 2017?) could offer more experimental hints that LHC-Whenever (maybe in 2035?) might offer.

    Seems to be exciting times.

    --Tim May

  7. Tim,

    I've seen the paper, I've read it, if you look at it, you'll notice I'm in the acknowledgements. Also, Niayesh spoke about this at the conference I organized in September, so I've known about the result months ago. If I haven't written about it, please assume I have reasons not to. Best,


  8. Hi Sabine,

    Does anyone wonder which is "unnatural"; Nature or the theory?


  9. "How religion turned to math"

    Intentional ambiguity? Could mean "how religion turned into math" or "how religion turned to math for advice".

  10. My previous question is genuine. Nevertheless, even if one of the two (or more) possible interpretations seemed more natural, I wouldn't choose it without further evidence. :-)

  11. Phillip,

    No, an unintentional ambiguity. But now that you point it out, not an entirely bad one. In my talk I'm giving a brief historical account of the religious roots of arguments from naturalness, but I think people are also using naturalness or beauty more generally as a backdoor to sneak religious thought into scientific arguments.

  12. Just out of curiosity I looked up the road distance from Frankfurt to Munich, where Sabine will be presenting her lecture, and it was 393 kilometers (244 miles). That's a pretty good drive, and probably will be quite scenic, with the Bavarian Alps possibly visible on some part of the route.

  13. David,

    I'm here by train, but I know the route by car and it's not a particularly pleasant drive. The A3 is a very busy highway, but quite curvy and narrow and requires much attention while driving. Best,


  14. It has been reported that Niayesh Afshordi dedicated his paper as some kind of "birthday present" to you. Is that the reason why you do not comment on it? Sabine, it would really be interesting to know what you think about these alleged findings (echoes in LIGO measurements). Please say at least a little bit, so (those interested) visitors to your blog have some orientation. Plus: how did your talk go?
    Best, Robert

  15. Hi Robert,

    Well, yes, Niayesh made this joke in his talk that the signal is a present for my 40st birthday, which happened to be the day before the conference began. The videos are now online, though last time I tried one couldn't actually watch them (not sure it works now).

    The reason I'm not commenting on it is that I know there's some discussion about the validity of the statistical analysis. I'm not an expert on this and hence I think it would be premature to write about this before the dust is settled.

    Talk went well, I think. The philosophers were very interested, it seems. I hope that the topic will receive some more attention in the next years. I learned a lot at the workshop which I'll have to digest now. Best,


  16. Peter Coles, an expert on statistics in astrophysics has some discussion on his blog, which is a good mix of hard science, Baroque music, and politics. :-) I've won the prize for posting the most comments there several years in a row, and will probably win for 2016 when it is announced at the beginning of next years. :-)

  17. Phillip,

    Thanks for the reference to Peter Coles' blog. It's correct what he writes of course, but I think that's an issue of bad phrasing and not an issue of bad analysis. The sentence I think is just there to convert the sigma to a more readily to interpret probability.

  18. Sabine: It is taking infinite time to download one talk (even though have good internet connection). Anyone else having the same problem? Could you request the technical support staff to upload the talks on youtube, if that is possible?

    Just another technical comment. I really hate indico and don't know why everyone uses it. Its annoying if for every talk you have to click twice to go to the talk folder and then click again to see the pdf.
    I prefer the old way where there was a one-stop link (to pdf and videos) to all talks.
    (see for example program of neutrino 2002

  19. Shantanu,

    Yes, I'm having the same problem. I've complained about these issues for months now. As you can see, it didn't help.

    Of course my first suggestion was to upload the videos to YouTube. I've been told that this isn't possible for some legal reasons which I cannot fathom and cannot understand and therefore can't communicate to you either.

    I also distinctly dislike indico, but it was the only option on offer, so what was I supposed to do? I previously simply set up a website myself to circumvent dysfunctional templates, but again I was told that this wouldn't be possible for some reason or the other.

    I am sincerely sorry about this, but trust me, it's as annoying for me as it is for you.


  20. Hi Sabine,
    Thanks for the clarification. Anyhow, not criticising you for sticking to indico. I am surprised that the whole whole is switching to indico to upload talks

  21. Shantanu,

    I'm being told it's as good as it will get now and if you're having trouble downloading the videos the problem is on your side. For me it seems to download ok today, but needless to say I'd rather not have to download files of half a GB to begin with.

  22. Sabine:
    I downloaded one file (L. Krauss), but I could not view it. So somehow (unless the download on my side was problematic), the files are not good. But someone else should check it.
    Robert: There is a rebuttal to the paper you mentioned. See

  23. Shantanu,

    The IT guys ask for system specification. What operating system, browser, player?

  24. Shantanu,

    IT says try this and tell us if it works better:

  25. Sabine, Sorry for the delay in replying as I was busy with some bureaucratic matters followed by vacation. So today I downloaded Krauss's file and the download was superquick. Somehow quicktime player could not play the flv file and so I then downloaded Wimpyplayer and then it worked like a charm. So please convey my heartfelt thanks to the IT folks for resolving the problem and please request them to redo whatever magic they did for Krauss's file to all the others


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